How a country the size of New Jersey became the epicenter of medical marijuana.
TEL AVIV — After speaking here last month at a conference devoted to cannabis innovation, Garyn Angel handed out cannabis-infused salad dressing and sauces to people seeking to add an extra kick to their lunch.
The CannaTech conference drew high-profile speakers, including Yuval Landschaft, director of the Medical Cannabis Unit at Israel’s Ministry of Health, and Sharren Haskel, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party and one of Israel’s biggest advocates of medical marijuana. The government speakers underscored the Israeli government’s growing involvement in medical marijuana research and development.
Such high-level participation also underscores Israel’s rise as a global research destination for other countries and companies. As countries such as the U.S. wrestle with the legal status of marijuana, Israel is carving a place for medical cannabis research, an increasingly lucrative industry.
“Cannabis is what brought me to Israel,” says Angel, a Florida-based entrepreneur named to CNBC’s “Next List” of innovators shaping global commerce. “The world’s best cannabis scientists and researchers are all out of Israel. No other country comes close.”
Israeli research pioneered the medical marijuana industry. Angel first came here in 2015 to meet 86-year-old Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam, a researcher at Hebrew University and a leading pioneer in cannabis research.
Mechoulam’s research has included co-discovering the endocannabinoid system, the largest receptor system in the human body. He also found that the human brain produces its own cannabinoids — compounds that stimulate the body’s receptor system. Scientists at the NIH believe these compounds could alleviate dozens of illnesses, including schizophrenia, diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis, to name a few. The revelation of this endogenous cannabinoid system essentially legitimized the study of a substance previously on the margins of scientific research.
“We wouldn’t have the scientific interest we have now around the world without the discovery and understanding of how these constituents in the marijuana plant act on this receptor system,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Mechoulam’s research, he says, “opened the door to making the study of cannabis and cannabinoids a legitimate avenue for more conventional scientists.”
Those doors to research are trickier to open in the U.S., where eight states have legalized marijuana and 28 states carry some form of medical marijuana law, but using the substance remains illegal under federal law.
Enter Israel, which has become an international leader in cannabis research, partly fueled by the world’s highest percentage of financial resources devoted to research.
Israel was among the first countries to legalize medical pot – it remains illegal for recreational use – and is one of just three countries with a government-sponsored cannabis program, along with Canada and the Netherlands. The Israeli parliament recently took steps towards legalizing the export of medical cannabis. The Israeli company Breath of Life will soon open a 1-million-square-foot grow-house and research center in southern Israel. The space will be among the largest medical cannabis growth and R&D facilities in the world, according to Viridian Capital Advisors, a financial firm focused on the cannabis market.